RENO, Nev. - A jet engine fire engulfed the wing of an air tanker moments after takeoff, sending the plane rolling into the ground and killing all three members of the aerial firefighting crew, a federal investigator said Tuesday.
The Lockheed P2V-7 aircraft on the way to drop retardant on a California wildfire was between 100 and 300 feet off the ground when it crashed less than 2 miles from the Reno-Stead Airport on Monday evening, said Tom Little, lead investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.
Little said nothing indicates pilot error played a role in the crash, which brings to 27 the number of deaths in fatal crashes of firefighting air tankers in the U.S. since 1991.
"Two witnesses confirmed the fire was from the jet engine," Little told reporters at the airport north of Reno on Tuesday night.
Investigators recovered several large pieces of metal north of the runway that appear to have come from the burning engine, he said.
"It appears it had disintegrated and subsequently left the aircraft. We know there was a fire on board the aircraft," Little said.
"We just are at a loss right now as to why, No. 1, the engine caught on fire, and No. 2, what caused the loss of control of the aircraft?" he said. "That is what the focus of the investigation will be over the next six to nine months."
Casey Meaden, who lives near the airport, said she was watching the plane take off when she noticed an engine was on fire.
"It didn't seem like he was getting much altitude," she told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "It was a little while after it got into the air. I could see it was off the ground. I said, 'Oh, my God! That thing is on fire.'"
The plane had been dispatched to fight a fire in California on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. But the tanker was no longer needed and was recalled shortly after taking off, said Marnie Bonesteel, spokeswoman with the Sierra Front Wildfire Cooperators.
The fire in West Point, Calif., was fully contained at 50 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's Web site.
The plane, owned by Neptune Aviation of Missoula, Mont., and built in 1962, was one of 12 the company had on contract with the Forest Service to fight fires.
It had made one flight over a different California fire south of Lake Tahoe on Monday morning and then returned to the Stead airport, where it remained until the crash.
Christie Kalkowski, a Forest Service spokeswoman, said there were no immediate plans to ground any planes in the aftermath of the crash.
"Those planes under contract will continue to fly as requested and needed," she said Tuesday.
Monday's crash marked at least the third time a P2V owned by Neptune was in a fatal crash while fighting wildfires on government contract over the past 15 years. Two men were killed when one crashed near Missoula in 1994 and two other men died in a crash near Reserve, N.M., in 1998.
Neptune Aviation Chief Executive Officer Mark Timmons said those previous crashes were caused by pilot error.